"We don't need no education.
We don't need no thought control.
No dark sarcasm in the classroom.
Teacher, leave those kids alone.
Hey, teacher, leave those kids alone.
All in all you're just another brick in the wall
All in all you're just another brick in the wall."
---Pink Floyd. "The Wall."
I still can't forget her, and I know I never will. Even when I'm old and gray and sitting in a rocking chair she will forever be etched in my memory. She called herself Wendy, but her real name was Wang Tien. I was in China, Shandong province with just over two years of ESL teaching experience. It was October, 2000. I was 41 years old, but I could have been 21. I was in China. And I was excited and scared.
The place was called Huamei International school. It was an unfinished boarding school with half empty buildings and a heating system that worked sporadically. Although the teacher's dorms had western flush toilets and showers, the student dorms were a throwback to the Chairman Mao days of austere living. The students had to bathe using a filthy communal wash basin and relieve themselves through a hole in the floor. Their waste was collected on plywood, and t he plywood was changed once a day.
The cafeteria was huge, but unheated. And the specialties most days were chicken's feet, rice, and hard white buns that could put someone in the hospital for days if thrown directly at them. We did eat some steam buns with real meat in them, but that was only on Saturday when the parents came to visit.
My classes were fine-- 20 to 25 young teenagers to a class, although I was promised much smaller classes. The textbooks were boring, but Chinese based. Most of the kids were fantastic. They had never seen foreigners before, and they were as fascinated with us as we were with them. Some of them loved to rub my hairy forearms, while others just stared. But they were fun to be with. Most of them, anyway.
One day while I was teaching, I noticed something about Wang Tien's hands. At first I wasn't sure what i t was. I took a closer look. Both her hands were covered with what looked like razor cuts. Dozens of superficial razor cuts. I should have noticed it before. Could that be? Could it be that she tried to cut open her hands? But why? A desperate plea for attention? Did something happen at home? I knew that this was China and girls are not wanted nearly as much as boys. Did her parents love her?
I asked her what happened. She just said, "accident." That's all she said. "Accident." She didn't even try to hide her hands. So I told some of the Chinese teachers about Wang Tien's hands. "Oh, problems at home", they said. And that's all they said. "Problems at home." I never did find out.
She was 15 years old and whenever I saw Wang Tien from then on I would ask her how her hands were. "Fine", she would say shyly and walked away.
Then one day I worked up the courage to take her hands in mine and gently rub them, hoping that the cuts would magically disappear. Whenever I saw her, whether it be in the hall or in the cafeteria, I would say, "Hi Wendy, how are your hands?"
"Fine", she would say as a smile beamed across her face. After a while, I didn't even have to ask her anymore. We would see each other in the hall or the cafeteria. She would hold out her hands. I would gently cup them in mine and rub the cuts away.
About two months after I started teaching at Huamei-- on Wednesday of week eight, I was called to the Principal's office. From what I was hearing-- especially from the other five foreign teachers-- the school wasn't very happy with me. Sure, I was playing some hangman with the students. And I did teach them the word "fart." Could that be it? Imagine, being called to the Principal's office at 41 years of age.
His name was Ma. Principal Ma. Th e first thing I noticed when I stepped into his office was a very large portrait of Chairman Mao directly behind his desk. The very same po rtrait you see in Tiannemen Square. From what I was told, Principal Ma adored Chairman Mao. Why anyone can adore a man responsible for the deaths of more people in the 20th Century than any other is beyond me. But there they were, Principal Ma and Chairman Mao. Also in the room was his interpreter. Principal Ma could not speak English. Not one word, I was told.
"Mr. Steve", the interpreter began. I nodded and looked around the room. Principal Ma sat in a huge chair behind his desk. This huge chair made his body look small. I wasn't sure if he was aware of that. His interpreter sat just opposite me. His English was pretty good, although a bit stilted.
"Mr. Steve", the interpreter said again. I nodded and this time I said "yes."
The interpreter continued. "It has come to our attention that your teaching methods are not ---" (a pause) 'appropriate.' What you have done in the classroom is not---" (another pause) 'the Chinese way.'"
"What have I done?"
Principal Ma and the interpreter looked at each other. Principal Ma said something to the interpreter. He may have been getting his inspiration from Chairman Mao. The interpreter looked back at me. "You play too many games. And you teach them the English word for 'Fangpi.'" That was the Chinese word for fart.
"I was just having some fun. They're kids and I just wanted to have some fun with them."
"I understand", continued the interpreter. "But this is China. And we don't do that in China."
Really? You don't fart in China? I wanted to say that. I really did, but I didn't.
"And one time you go to class drunk."
"Yes. Some students say they smell beer on your breath."
"That's not true", I replied sternly. In reality, I drink only after class.
"And you don't speak Chinese very well", the interpreter continued.
In fact, I didn't speak Chinese at all, although in the two months that I was there, I did learn how to say "Hello", "How are you?", "I'm fine, thanks", and "please pass the salt."
"You are not a gentleman, Mr. Steve. You are not a gentleman. The students don't like you. They do not understand you. They want another teacher."
"They don't like me?"
"That's right." (A pause, but not a long one.) "We want you out of the school by Friday. Our driver will take you to the train station. We have already purchased you a one-way ticket to Beijing on the overnight train. Do you have any questions?"
I was stunned. Did I have any questions? Only one. "Why don't the students like me?"
"They do not understand you", came the interpreter's terse response.
I didn't understand this. How can they do this to me? I wanted to fight this. The following day I met with the interpreter in his office. It was just after lunch and he was drunk. He was drunk! After falsely accusing me that I went to class drunk. "Listen, Mr. Steve", he began. "The owner of school, he have no more money. He borrow so much money from bank to open school, he have no more money to pay teachers. He not even pay me. I do you favour. I think it's best that you go."
Suddenly I understood. But why did they have to lie to me? To save face? And was it true about the students? Did they really not like me?
The following evening-- Friday-- the day I was to leave for Beijing, I went first to the girl's dorm to say goodbye to the students. I thought I would have time to do both the girl's and boy's dorms. I took my camera since I had about a dozen pictures left. I explained to the girls what had happened. I showed them a piece of paper where I had written in Chinese, "I was fired", and a few of them started to cry. I couldn't believe it. Why would they cry? After all, I was told that they didn't like me. That they wanted another teacher.
One by one they came out of their dorm rooms. Some with tears in their eyes. Some holding out their hands in a beautiful gesture of friendship. One by one they came out of their room. Some freshly bathed, their hair still wet. Some bearing gifts: A flower; a cassette of traditional Chinese songs; a good luck charm; beautiful pictures of themselves in traditional Chinese clothing. Some of them ran back to their room and came back moments later with notebooks and paper. They scribbled notes, tore the paper out of their books and gently handed them to me to read. They read:
"I love you, Steve."
"I miss you forever. Please don't forget me."
"For my favorite teacher. I miss you forever."
"To Steve: My best friend. I love you and miss you forever. Please don't forget China."
And on and on. Fifteen or twenty of them. It all happened so quickly that I couldn't keep track. There was Glenn, the girl that liked to rub my hairy forearms. Julie, the shy girl who couldn't even look at me. Sally and her friend, the one who cried. And then I saw her. Wendy. Wang Tien. Someone must have told her because her eyes were red from crying. I took her hands in mine for one last time. I didn't say anything. She didn't either. We didn't have to. I looked at her hands. The cuts were almost gone. Hardly noticable.
Then we took pictures. We hugged each other and promised we'd write. And we took more pictures until we couldn't take pictures anymore. I told them that I wanted to go and say goodbye to the boys, but they wouldn't let me. They circled me, tugged at my clothes, and wouldn't let me go. Chris, one of the two of the Chinese teachers who witnessed most of this, said that I really must have made an impression on them. I guess so. Even I wasn't aware of it.
The overnight train to Beijing was uneventful. I did have one nagging question as the train made its way to Beijing. As I watched old Chinese men and women spit on the floor and throw chicken bones out the window, I asked myself how beautiful Chinese children can grow up and become ugly Chinese adults? One of life's greatest mysteries.
The following day I was in an internet cafe across from Tiannemen Square looking for my next ESL job. I had decided on Korea, and sat in front of a computer screen wondering if I should mention this experience or include it in my resume. After all, it was only two months. And that's when it happened.
I don't know how it happened. I guess it just did. I thought of the goodbye the night before. I thought of all those wonderful girls at Huamei and how I would never see them again. And I thought of Wang Tien. Who would rub her hands? Who would take care of her? Then my tears began to flow. I cried like I hadn't cried in years. It suddenly hit me. I would never see them again. I tried to cover my face, but I was fully aware that people were watching. I was also aware that someone was tapping me on the shoulder, asking me if I was alright. I said, "Yes." Moments later, a glass of water appeared on the desk next to the computer.
I decided to put my ESL career on hold, and went to Thailand to recover. That was my first broken heart as an ESL teacher. My heart wasn't only broken, it was shattered. I vowed never to let something like that happen to me again. From that moment on I decided to build a wall around me, a wall so thick and so strong, that no one would ever do that to me again.
It's been four and a half years since I've seen Wang Tien, and hardly a day goes by when I don't think about her and the others at Huamei. I've had many experiences since then in Korea and Thailand-- good and bad-- but the wall that I have spent the last four and half years building and protecting is still thick and strong. That is, until a few weeks ago.
I began a three week summer class at AUA. It was the students' first exposure to AUA and I wanted to make a good impression. We all learned a lot and had some fun in the process. A difficult balance even under the best of circumstances. I still don't know how it happened. Maybe it was the grammar song that I composed using the tune of "My Bonny Lies Over The Ocean" for adverbs of frequency.
1) Elicit sports, activities, and food from the students.
2) Go over six or seven different frequency adverbs.
3) Write this on the board:
"How often do you go swimming?
how often do you go swimming?
I sometimes go swimming,
how about you?"
Feel free to change the activites and frequency adverbs.
4) Model it until the students understand, and let the fun begin.
At some point a very smart 15 year old girl named Kam took over. She put the 20 odd students in a circle, and on "how about you?" threw an imaginary ball to the others. And on it went. For at least 15 minutes. I wasn't sure. I just stood back and watched as these kids were having a ball.
"How often do you eat somtam?
how often do you eat somtam?
I always eat somtam,
how about you?"
I wasn't sure what to think. But I left class that day feeling that I had accomplished something. That's a rare feeling in the ESL world.
The following week one of the directors of AUA came to see me while I was in the teacher's resource room, a concerned look on his face. "Steve, I just had eight of your students from your three week class come to see me. They seem concerned. They had a great time last week, and they like you very much. But they said that this week you've changed. You've become a lot more serious. At least that's what they've said. They seem to be having problems with the listening activities."
That was probably true, although I didn't really notice it quite frankly. I am serious and I do want my students to learn. And they were having problems with the listening which made things a bit more frustrating for all of us. Maybe I was taking things a bit too seriously, and should loosen up more. After all, it was a lower level class.
The students were trying to tell me something. But what? I didn't want to sweep this incident under the rug so I came up with a warmer to begin next class. I brought in pictures of doctors, nurses, teachers, astronauts, and big houses. I wrote on the board in big letters, "What is your dream? "Then I wrote the word, "success." Some of them looked it up in their dictionary. I asked them what their dreams were. Then I handed out pieces of blank paper and asked them to draw a picture of their dream. I explained that if they continued to study English at AUA and stay in school, they will succeed and maybe, just maybe, thei r dreams will come true.
Their pictures were beautiful. Some were of doctors and nurses who cured the sick. Others were of big houses with happy smiling children. But their dreams were real. And so were they. I got the students up and they walked around the class asking others about their dreams.
Friday, the following week, was our last day together. With five minutes remaining I thanked the students and told them that it was fun teaching them. "Teacher", one of them said. "We have a gift for you."
"What? For me?"
"Yes!!!", a few of them said in unison. Then one of them produced a colourful bag with with a large gift-wrapped box inside. "Open it now."
So I did. It was a clock. A pig clock. About 12 inches high. The pig was wearing very colourful glasses and looked as if he was riding a car, the steering wheel being the clock. It needs two batteries, one for the clock and one to make the pig's head sway from side to side. I was shocked. A few of the students began to laugh. At this point maybe I should explain.
Those who teach in Thailand already know that their students have nicknames--- three of four letter ones, sometimes named after animals and, compared to the traditionally long Thai names, usually easy to pronounce. My nickname is "Moo." It's the Thai word for pig, and I'm very proud to say that I chose it myself. In fact, every first class of each term I put my nametag at the edge of my desk. It has my nickname on it as well as a picture of a pig. I invite the students to do the same. They are usually more than happy to oblige.
Some of the students took pictures using their cell phones. Then they gave me a card. It was signed by 14 of them. This is what some of them said.
To Mr. Steve (Khun Moo)
"Thank you very much for your kindy and your concern to me and everybody in my classes. I love English Language more than 3 weeks ago. I wish you have a nice time in Thailand. You are a good teacher for me."
"This is the last time in this class. I feel so sad. But I have happies -- very happies all the time. I think you is very good teacher. I wish you very happies."
Ooan & Ming.
To my teacher (Moo)
"I like you very much. I'm thank you your teach more than 3 weeks ago. You're good teacher for me."
To... My teacher.
"Thank you very much. You are my best teacher for me. I wish you have a nice time in your life. Forget me not."
And on and on. Fourteen times. I couldn't believe it. What had I done to deserve this? Hadn't I spent so long building this wall? Didn't I want to make sure that what happened to me in China, and other places, would never happen again? What can I have possibly done in three weeks to deserve this much attention from these students?
After all, there was no Wang Tien with cuts on her hands that needed healing. Or with the thick, strong wall that I had spent so long constructing, maybe I hadn't taken the time to notice. Cuts are not always physical. In fact, they very rarely are. Those wonderful students had fired a rocket that damaged the wall, and I'm still not sure what to think. One thing's for certain. Building a wall around you is a wonderful way to keep the bad ESL experiences at bay. It's a way to keep the good experiences out as well.
As part of AUA's professional development program, teachers are constantly asked what we have learned from our experiences both in and out of the classroom. So, what have I learned from this one? I'm still not sure. Walls around us are okay, so long as they don't prevent us from connecting with our students and teaching them what they need to know in a comfortable learning environment.
I did learn that students-- especially those here at AUA-- are acutely aware of the teacher's mood. Those eight students who went to see the director were genuinely concerned about me. They had sensed something about me that even I wasn't aware of. I'm greatful for that, although I hope it doesn't happen too often.
In past columns I've talked about our role and mission as ESL teachers. That is a particular passion of mine. So what did I learn from this experience? It's not what I've learned. It's what I'm still learning. I'm learning that ESL teaching is a useless endeavor unless there's a Wang Tien in your class. Someone who makes you care and feel. I'm learning that a wall around you, although useful at strategic times, is dangerous when students are relying on you to connect with them and deliver "the goods." I'm learning that when you surround yourself with great people, other great teachers and supervisors who's job and role it is to help and support you, that you really don't need a wall as much as you may think you do. I'm learning that all ESL teachers-- whether from Canada, the U.S., the U.K., Australia, New Zealand-- or other English speaking countries-- are all in this together.
But most of all, this experience taught me something very powerful. And it was from a beautiful young Thai woman in my class named Wan. "I love English now more than 3 weeks ago", she said.
With those nine words, Wan, and others just like her, let me know exactly what I should be doing here. She let me and other ESL teachers know exactly what our mission should be.
Thank you Wan.
All in all, we're NOT just another brick in the wall.